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Contemporary India: Two Great Satirical Novels

February 19, 2010

These observations may strike you as a bit tardy, but as I’ve only recently started the blog, bear with me. The publicity surrounding Slumdog Millionaire, and the Academy Awards, the plight of the actors’ families, etc threw the poignant contrast of modern India into the spotlight like no other cultural production has before or since. Many works by or about Indians have certainly achieved moderate commercial success (see: Bend it Like Beckham, Water, The Darjeeling Limited, the Namesake, etc.), but it was nothing like what we saw when Slumdog Millionaire hit American movie theaters and M.I.A.’s Paper Planes triumphantly hit the airwaves with her gunshot beats. I know SM was directed by Danny Boyle (a Brit, though it was adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A), and that M.I.A. is actually Sri Lankan, not Indian. And I won’t even get into how many Indian films do the same thing SM did but did it better (that’s for another post). Instead, my point here is that if you enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire (or Q & A) and it’s varied portrayal of India, which I definitely did, you might also like the two Indian novels I highlight below. The first is The White Tiger, by Aradind Adiga, which received the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2008, and the second is English, August: An Indian Story, by Upamanyu Chatterjee.

The White Tiger is the first-person-narrated tale of Balram Halwai, who escapes his miserable village life to find a job in the big city. Balram details the brutal poverty of rural life, the insurmountable corruption of the Indian officials, and how he, full of rage and ambition, escapes to the city and becomes a “social entrepreneur”/murderer. That’s right: you actually learn early on of Balram’s crime, and how he is wanted by the police, but despite his moral nonchalance, the novel quite interestingly gets you to sympathize with Balram throughout (which is no small feat!). The novel is darkly funny, Adiga’s narrative voice is sarcastic and uncensored, and the book highlights the lingering inequality and fierce competition that accompanies India’s collective rise as a nation, and that inevitably accompanies prosperity. It’s a very well written account of the duality of modern India: the comfortable upper class on the one hand (the “big-bellied caste”), and the uneducated, under-resourced, and often desperate classes (the “small-bellied caste”) who are left behind.

English, August follows the story of Agastya, an educated 24-year-old stoner from New Delhi who gets a bureaucratic post in a small rural town. His privilege causes his utter apathy for everything around him, particularly the abject poverty of the villagers. He prefers smoking pot by himself in his dark room and reading Marcus Aurelies over anything else, so he maintains either a physical distance from the people around him or, when he does venture out, the hazy distance of being high. When he does encounter people, he makes up stories about himself, lying shamelessly to anyone he meets. What I love about this novel is that because the reader is seeing world through the eyes of a stoner, the tone is sarcastic, ridiculous, and utterly hilarious. (At one point Agastya befriends a frog). But despite the stoner-comedy form, the novel chronicles the very real atrocities of village life (violence, crushing poverty) while also deftly criticizing the debilitating apathy of young people in the upper-middle class. Again, the reader is treated to a moving portrait of modern India: first world sophisticates alongside third world struggles.

In some ways these novels are opposites: one is about a privileged slacker from the city who moves to the country and rots in a bureaucratic post, and the other is about an industrious villager who moves to the city seeking fame and fortune. You have the indifference of the rich city-kid in one novel, and the raw, unbridled (and unchecked) ambition of the village kid in the other. But taken together, you can almost see Agastya becoming the sweet but spineless employer that Balram ends up murdering. So in a way, these novels are an excellent complement to one another – providing the two conflicting perspectives each author is exploring. All of that being said, I would recommend that anyone interested in contemporary Indian fiction should check out these two novels. They are great.

The White Tiger 7.5/10;  English, August 7/10

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